Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter concludes with a lingering, blurry shot of the December 16 gangrape victim’s mother: aware of a camera staring back at her, struggling to keep the personal away from the public and hold back tears. As one stray tear rolls down her left cheek, Udwin’s frame melts into an image of pyres burning on smog-cloaked river bank. The victim’s mother’s voice rings through the image, “The sound of her breathing stopped, the lines on the monitor started flattening.” As she finishes talking the camera zooms in to a pyre, the black fonts of the last line stand out against the quivering flames in the background.
It’s the kind of camera technique used in movies. It was hard enough to listen to the mother recollect the final moments of her daughter, but Udwin’s documentary can’t leave it there. It must make the heavy handed and forced trick of cutting in the image of the pyre
And then you start to think: what question did Udwin ask the victim’s mother that she narrates in great detail such a painful experience to a camera. While, ‘what were his/her last words’ may be a standard questions many journalists clinically ask the kin of the dead, it doesn’t become less exploitative with repetition. Or less traumatizing for an interviewee.
That closing shot also reveals Udwin’s greatest sin: A predilection for the dramatic, to disdain nuance in favour of excess.
The primary trajectory that the documentary follows is a reconstruction of the day’s events; two narratives run simultaneously, following on each other’s heels. The effect — intended or not — is exploitative.
Asked to talk about the day the rape took place, convict Mukesh Singh says nonchalantly, “We decided we will go to GB road. People do wrong things there,” as the camera pans on prostitutes lined up the road. Immediately, the documentary cuts to the victim’s mother talking about how the day started off for her. “She came back home and was very happy that the exams were over…” she says.
At another point, Mukesh is saying, “Then they said, she must be dead. Throw her, throw her out.” The documentary juxtaposes Mukesh’s voice for a while with a visual of the victim’s mother weeping, her head in her hands.
India’s Daughter has all the finesse of the average Bollywood potboiler — which may be amusing in fiction but is offensive in the retelling of heinous crime. The juxtaposition of two narratives for high drama feels very wrong, where the grief of the victim’s family becomes a cinematographic effect to enhance the impact of the rapist’s account. It is clear what the director perhaps intended to do: to try every trick in the book to maximise the impact of the story. But this is a horror tale that needs no embroidering. To ‘jazz’ it up is to do great disservice to an already gut-wrenching incident.
And then there is the narrative arc. What purpose is served by making the perpetrator and the victim’s kin recollect details of that day? Not only does it feed a voyeuristic curiousity, but by also giving a disproportionate amount of time to Mukesh Singh, the documentary feels like it should be titled not India’s Daughter, but rather The Man Who Raped India’s Daughter.
Mukesh Singh gets an uninterrupted stage to say his “piece”, as when he says, “The juvenile put his hand inside her and something came out. I guess it was her intestines…”
He adds, “Later I asked him, what happened with the woman’s stuff. He said, I wrapped it in a towel and threw it.”
It takes a special kind of resilience to sit and listen such vile things, and to do so without interrupting or objecting. But in this case, the consequence is that Mukesh Singh, a rapist and murderer gets to justify his crime. And all we can do is to watch powerlessly, as we do when women are raped over and again in this country. In a more traditional news interview, Udwin could have asked, “Do you not think that is cruel and inhuman?” It would have added a much needed counterpoint to Mukesh’s ghastly soliloquy.
The rapists’ lawyers ML Sharma and AP Singh too get to voice their misogynistic, warped ideas with great flourish. “A woman is like a diamond. If you leave her on the street, the dogs will come and take her,” says Sharma.
“I stand by what I had said,” declares AP Singh who had said that he will burn his sister or daughter if she ventured out in the evening like the victim.
As we know, these men, like many other have voiced such dangerous opinions in the past without consequences. The film doesn’t antagonise them either.
That’s why the documentary makes me uncomfortable. While it talks about the protests in India, and the news laws that were passed, the film in itself fails to embody the resistance that either the victim or the people of the country put up against patriarchy and sexual violence. Pitted against the rapist and his lawyers, the victim’s parents look helpless and spent.
India’s Daughter quietly listens in to what a rapist, murderer has to say. It doesn’t rage, it doesn’t even blink while doing so. And that just feels wrong.